Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.
With the release of In League With Dragons, The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is fully 18 albums — not to mention numerous EPs, several side projects, a high-profile podcast series and a pair of novels — into a career spanning more than a quarter-century. With nothing left to prove, he's found more than ever to say, as recent recordings dive headlong into the specificity-rich worlds of underground wrestling (2015's Beat the Champ) and outcast subcultures (2017's Goths).
If you're looking to shorthand the concept around which In League With Dragons revolves, you could say this is Darnielle's album about Dungeons & Dragons; about role-playing games and the byzantine mythologies that help animate them. (He did, after all, announce the project in a live-streamed event at the headquarters of D&D's publisher, Wizards of the Coast.) But In League With Dragons' conceptual reach sprawls significantly farther than gaming.
Darnielle's own press statement describes the subgenre on display as "dragon noir," and he begins a lengthy rundown of In League With Dragons with the words, "This album began as a rock opera about a besieged seaside community called Riversend ruled by a benevolent wizard." But Darnielle's greatest gifts lie in his ability to pick apart more earthbound human frailties, and the songs on In League With Dragons operate accordingly. In "Doc Gooden," for example, a washed-up baseball player looks back in bitterness as he dreams of a comeback, while the jaunty "Waylon Jennings Live!" finds its narrator drunk at a casino, "right where God intended me to be."
All of which is to say that there's a lot to unpack here, from the crime-scene viscera of "Cadaver Sniffing Dog" to the mass pleas for mercy in "Clemency for the Wizard King," and it all unfolds amid arrangements more polished and ambitious than early Mountain Goats fans could have ever imagined. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: If you're going to make an album-length tribute to fantastical, fictional worlds, you'd best not make it simple.